I suppose we will forever be subjected to incomplete accounts of the life of Nelson Mandela and the evil he struggled against. Both the Right and the Left (as conventionally defined in America) are too busy pushing agendas to provide the full story.
On the establishment Right (with some honorable exceptions) apartheid was deemed unimportant in the context of the Cold War. Conservatives found it easy to condemn Mandela as a terrorist and a communist, while minimizing or ignoring the violence perpetrated by the South African regime against blacks (and other nonwhites). The implication was that apartheid wasn’t really so bad and that the militancy of its opponents was unreasonable. South Africa, after all, was a U.S. ally against the Soviet Union and a member of the “free world” — a shocking notion when one considers the appalling lack of freedom there. This complacency had its parallel in the attitude of many conservatives toward government-enforced racial segregation in the American South.
Apartheid South Africa, of course, brutalized, humiliated, and stifled individuals merely because of their race. Had blacks been oppressing whites, voices on the Right would have howled without end. Apartheid should have sickened and infuriated anyone who believed in the dignity of the individual and the freedom each person deserves by virtue of his or her humanity. But even at this late date, praising Mandela — for embracing racial reconciliation and averting civil war, for rejecting dictatorship and the cult of personality — can evoke vicious reactions from the Right, as Newt Gingrich learned. (Of course this is not to say that Mandela was a saint. “That’s not the job I applied for,” he once told John Pilger.)
But the establishment Left also leaves out a big piece of the story: the precise nature of apartheid. Progressives portray apartheid as the systemic violation of blacks’ civil rights, including the freedom to move about freely without an internal passport. True enough. But what progressives and mislabeled liberals don’t understand — or don’t want to admit — is that apartheid was a legislative prohibition of the free exercise of choice in a marketplace unfettered by government-bestowed privilege. Indeed, one cannot conceive of apartheid without official interference with markets. The opposite of apartheid is laissez-faire.
Apartheid did not merely consist in the state’s denial of the right of blacks (and whites!) to trade goods and services — including labor — with whomever they wished. The system was instigated by white labor unions precisely to keep blacks from competing.
This was clearly spelled out in 1964 in The Economics of the Colour Bar by University of Cape Town economist W.H. Hutt (1899–1988), a self-described classical liberal (libertarian), a leading opponent of apartheid, and a prominent critic of Keynesian economics.
While formal apartheid got started in 1948, Hutt wrote, legislation protecting white workers from competition goes as far back as 1907. In the second decade of the 20th century, the government effectively prevented black workers from competing with whites by forbidding blacks from offering to work for less than the wages artificially inflated by restrictive legislation. So-called “standard rate “ (or “equal pay for equal work”) legislation may sound humanitarian, but by intention and in practice it facilitated racism by preventing a group disadvantaged by bigotry from offering more attractive terms to employers. Apartheid made racism costless and so encouraged it.
That such restrictions were enshrined in legislation indicated that white employers would otherwise have hired black workers, enabling blacks to advance and prosper. As Hutt wrote,
The lesson of history, explained by classical economic analysis, is that disinterested market pressures, under the profit-seeking inducement, provide the only objective, systematic discipline that would dissolve traditional barriers and offer opportunities irrespective of race or colour.
In the decades following World War II, legislative decrees formalized racial bigotry by “accord[ing] dictatorial powers over the use of African labour.” These powers included control even over where blacks could live and work, and what kind of work they could do.
This horror ended in the early 1990s, with credit due to Mandela. But he and his movement were not nearly radical enough, because although they eliminated apartheid, they left in place a government powerful enough to control the economic system to the detriment of working people. The market still needs to be freed.